HAPPY WANDERER: Minneapolis is Midwest mecca for live theatre


CONTRACOSTATIMES.COM  May 29, 2009

FOIE GRAS AT A five-star restaurant: $27. Poolside umbrella drinks: $24.50. Lutefisk in a live theater presentation: priceless.

In a list of the world’s great stage cities, Minneapolis is one of my favorites. Maybe it’s the weather that spurs such a hearty helping of creativity. There are literally hundreds of live productions in the Twin Cities and surroundings (it’s the third largest theater market in the United States), and the offerings are eclectic, if not downright outrageous.

Take the long-running production of “Church Basement Ladies” at the Plymouth Playhouse, a northwestern suburb of Minneapolis. This spoof on Minnesota’s Scandinavian/Lutheran heritage has the casserole as the way to salvation for a group of gals who volunteer in the church kitchen. While the macaroni bubbles in layers of potato chips and cheese, the ladies spill the beans on everything from relationships to the latest town gossip — all with that celebrated Minnesota-speak — a la “Prairie Home Companion.”

Of course, not every play punctuates Minnesota’s folksy humor and Scandinavian roots. Dudley Riggs’ Brave New Workshop tackles everything from politics to pop culture, as the oldest ongoing sketch comedy theater in the country. More than 3 million people have caught their acts since the cabaret-style complex opened in Minneapolis in 1958.

Down the road a half hour, where corn fields skirt neighborhoods of upscale

homes, the Chanhassen Dinner Theatre is the largest venue of its kind in the country. I’ve seen everything from “MID-LIFE! The Crisis” to “Oklahoma!” at this venerable playhouse, which draws visitors from across the Midwest. The theater’s most recent offering was my favorite. “Always, Patsy Cline,” the story of Patsy Cline’s endearing friendship with a Texas housewife, left me hungry for grits and a whiskey to wash it down. Patsy died tragically in 1963, but she was remarkably reincarnated in this musical, featuring 27 of her best country songs.The most notable theater in Minneapolis is the Guthrie, a complex spawned by a letter on the drama page of The New York Times on Sept. 30, 1959. Actor Tyrone Guthrie invited cities to show their interest in building a major resident theater. Minneapolis beat out six other locals, including San Francisco, for the honor and the Guthrie was born. Celebrated and sophisticated, this venue commands high ticket prices, and gets it, for productions from Broadway and beyond.

But as silly as it sounds, it’s a little too highbrow for me. I prefer an earthier offering — something along the lines of, say, cod soaked in lye. Only in Minnesota can you find a play devoted to lutefisk, a Norwegian delicacy that some find delectable and others find detestable. Having been denied this dish as a child, I was drawn to a live production where it was not only cooked on stage, but its odor dispersed into the audience via a giant fan. The heady aroma would be potent enough in a big theater, but this was an intimate setting.

For me and the rest of the cultured masses, it was a real uff-dah moment. (Uff dah, meaning “holy cow!” in Norwegian.) It was Minnesota humor at its finest.

For more information on Twin Cities theater, museums and the state’s 10,000 lakes (and a few puddles) log on to www.visitminneapolis.org.

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